This past Friday marked an unofficial holiday in Storrs.
Students began lining up outside of Gampel Pavilion for UConn basketball’s First Night as early as 3 p.m. to get one of the 10,167 seats inside of Gampel. When the doors opened three hours later, Gampel filled up quickly and by the time the player introductions began, it was as loud and rowdy as any big home game during the season.
Like usual, First Night didn’t disappoint. As soon as Gampel’s new LED lights were turned off, there was a palpable buzz around Gampel that got even louder as players and coaches began to be introduced. Terry Larrier, Omar Calhoun and a few other players busted out some dance moves, and the lights came on to start the second half of the night.
Calhoun, Courtney Ekmark and an intramural league all-star won the shooting starts competition, in which a team of one player from the men’s and women’s team and an intramural all-star had to make a layup, free throw, three-pointer and a half-court shot. After that, Moriah Jefferson took down freshman Katie Lou Samuelson in the three-point contest and Shonn Miller won a mundane dunk contest, jumping over Sterling Gibbs to claim the title.
Following the skills competition was the main event: the inter-squad scrimmage, which featured a mix of men’s and women’s players, with one mix of players playing for men’s coach Kevin Ollie and the other playing for women’s coach Geno Auriemma.
The game in itself was pretty mediocre, as expected. Teams traded missed layups for a few minutes in the first half. After the first half ended, a little less than half of the building cleared out, just like it did last year. Team Geno defeated Team Kevin 63-56 and ended the game in front of a crowd that looked a lot like when Tulane comes to town.
At the end of the day, none of the contests or the scrimmage really matters. What does matter is no one got hurt. As long as no one gets hurt, that constitutes a successful First Night in my book.
But what irks me about First Night is that scrimmage. Yes, it’s certainly a great humble brag. We’re one of just a few schools in the nation that can actually get away with doing something like this, and probably the only school that can make it competitive.
The problem here is an (understandable) lack of effort, which makes the effort in the NBA All-Star Game look like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And who can blame them? The two teams start practice the following day, aren’t getting paid and can’t risk getting hurt. They’re just trying to have fun.
As for the fans, I’m not sure why anyone would wait outside for hours to leave something before it even finished. But for some, it has to be a lack of interest. After so much hype to start the show, it’s amazing how quickly the energy can get sapped out so people can’t get out of Gampel fast enough after the first half.
Getting rid of the scrimmage and replacing it with more skill contests seems like the best way to keep things interesting on First Night while also mitigating some of the looming injury risks. I think following a concept similar to Saturday of the NBA All-Star Weekend could be a lot of fun.
For starters, an expanded shooting stars contest would be entertaining to watch. My one addition would be add a UConn “legend” like in the NBA version. I would love to see more basketball alumni at First Night, and think it would be great to see current WNBA and NBA players back at their alma mater. Add in a skills competition, where players have to dribble through cones, make a pass, then drain a jumper and then do it all again on the other end to form a loop. Fastest time wins.
While we’re at it, expand the three-point contest too. Four players from each team compete against each other, with the men’s winner taking on the women’s winner in the final round. It wouldn’t really take much longer, and who wouldn’t have loved to see Jefferson give Calhoun, Sam Cassell Jr., or Daniel Hamilton a run for their money? The way she was shooting Friday night, Jefferson probably takes home the overall crown.
As for the dunk contest, it can stay. Two rounds with three or four players, but no jumping over anyone or anything. Ollie nearly had a heart attack when Miller just barely cleared Gibbs to win the dunk contest title. We don’t need that. Not to mention, there are better, more creative dunks to be done than jumping over someone.
These aren’t radical changes, and they could take First Night to the next level. While the scrimmage is fun and entertaining, these players’ unbelievable skills are best showcased in the smaller contests. Don’t get me wrong, the scrimmage is always fun, but it’s not worth the injury risk. There’s no reason for players to take it seriously, so the fans don’t either.
That being said, I think fans will stick around to see players try and win something. These players are competitive, and have shown a lot of effort in these contests in the past. People will love to see these players compete harder than they would in the scrimmage while having fun and most importantly, trying to win. After all, winning is what UConn basketball is all about.